TED2009: psychologist Jennifer Mather


Psychologist Jennifer Mather is on stage at TED2009. She has been studying the minds of squids and octopuses. On a scuba expedition she witnessed an octopus build a wall of stone around its home, and she believes that cephalopod molluscs are much smarter than previously thought.

Are we the only intelligent beings in the Universe? Look to the oceans -- they are precious and we have to save them.

Octopuses as intelligent animals is that they are different from us (different branch on tree of live, different evolutionary paths). This makes it interesting to compare how they are smart and how we are smart.

When cephalopod lost shell, they had to come up with some good tricks (to survive) -- exquisite senses and very good brains being the main two.

Shows an amazing photo of octopus camouflage -- they are the real chameleons.

Octopuses have eyes similar to mammalian eyes. They have 8 arms -- "We call them arms, not tentacles, by the way."

What might indicate intelligence -- personalities, play, problem solving.

1. Personalities. Aquarium volunteers give names to different octopuses, because they have different personalities. She read about temperament and starting with observation. You turn your back on the normal scientific procedure we think about, Instead expose animals to common situations, then you run the through and record different behaviors, determine which ones are common, use statistical tools. One thing -- touching the octopuses with bottle brush. Some got mad and fought, some fled. They found three separate dimensions -- active, reactive, avoidant. So there's a background for developing intelligence.

2. Play. What is play? Out of context, fragmentary or repetitious, not immediately adaptive, simple. You won't play unless you are comfortable, well fed, and bored. They gave octopuses a floating pill bottle (neutrally buoyant). Initialy they grabbed it and brought it up to their mouth. After a while, the octopus would squirt a jet of water to the bottle to send it to the water intake, which would make it drift back to the octopus. She did it 20 times. "She's bouncing the ball!" Play is using inteligence, picking up info, storing it for the future.

3. Problem solving. Clams are a problem. They are in an arms race with their predators. Over the millennia, clams get stronger and octopus get smarter at opening them. They have strong arms, parrot-like beak, can secret acid with tooth covered organ to open clams. Scientist wired shut an easy-to-pull-open species of clam, and the octopus shifted its usual opening method (from pulling apart to chipping and drilling).

Octopuses have big brain, but not a highly developed nervous system. They are quick to learn, but equally quick to forget. Why? They have a short life. Sexuality is relegated to end of life span, it doesn't get in the way of their intelligence. They give us a chance to understand intelligence from a different model.


  1. And some people still eat meat. Amazing.

    -Looks furtively. Whispers.-
    As part of a “Fear Factor” for my church when I was much younger, I ate three palm-sized raw octopus. They were briny. I knew that cephalopods were somewhat intelligent, but winner got money donated to their charity of choice / etc / competitive spirit overwhelmed me and they were already dead, so I ate them.

    A week later I saw a documentary on cephalopod. Now I can’t even eat calamari.

  2. I don’t see the connection. Octopi are tasty, I enjoy eating them. Why should it matter that they are intelligent?

    Broccoli might be more intelligent than most people I meet, but it is still food. And why is intelligence a valid yardstick for predation? Surely plants would judge value by chorophyl efficiency, not intelligence?

    Vegetarianism seem like anti-plant bigotry to me.

  3. Excellent question Tenn!

    Because of the disease vector. Really, pigs are almost too close, and monkeys are right out.

    Keep in mind, that in an indirect way we all probably eat humans. Once your body feeds the earth, your molecules will cycle back to feed her creatures… which is why embalming and other resource-sequestering burial rites upset me. I want very much to be eaten after my death. First by an oak tree, then as acorns to pigs, and finally to feed a child who will grow to be happy and wise.

    I’m trying to avoid breaking into song again….

  4. I’m with Ito. I want to be buried naked, face up, no casket, and have a tree planted above me. My DNA will be absorbed by the tree, and maybe my consciousness will enter the tree. Then I can watch the community grow and change around me, and I’ll provide shelter and substance to insects and birds and maybe squirrels. I like squirrels.

  5. I can’t stop myself!!!!

    Listen up, brothers and sisters
    Come hear my desperate tale
    I speak of our friends of nature
    Locked in the earth like a jail

    Vegetables live in oppression
    Served on our tables each night
    This killing of veggies is madness;
    I say we take up the fight!

    Salads are only for murderers
    Cole slaw’s a fascist regime
    Don’t think that they don’t have feelings
    Just ’cause a radish can’t scream

    I’ve heard the screams of the vegetables
    (scream scream scream)
    Watching their skins being peeled
    (having their insides revealed)
    Breaded and steamed without mercy
    (burning off calories)
    How do you think that feels?
    (bet it hurts really bad!)
    Carrot juice constitutes murder
    (and that’s a real crime)
    Greenhouses prisons for slaves
    (let my vegetables go!)
    It’s time to stop all this gardening
    (it’s dirty as hell)
    Let’s call a spade a spade
    (is a spade, it’s a spade, it’s a spade)

    I saw a man eating celery
    So I beat him black and blue
    If he ever touches a sprout again
    I’ll bite him clean in two

    I’m a political prisoner
    Trapped in this windowless cage
    Cause I stopped a slaughter of turnips
    By killing five men in a rage

    I told the judge when he sentenced me
    “This is my finest hour
    I’d kill those farmers again
    Just to save one more cauliflower”

    (repeat 1st chorus)

    How low as people do we dare to stoop
    Making young broccolis bleed in the soup
    Untie your beans
    uncage your tomatoes
    Set potted plants free
    don’t mash that potato-o-o-o-o-o-o!

    I’ve heard the screams of the vegetables
    (scream scream scream)
    Watching their skins being peeled
    (fates in the stir fry are sealed)
    Breaded and steamed without mercy
    (you fat gourmet scum)
    How do you think that feels?
    (leave them out in the fields)
    Carrot juice constitutes murder
    (V8’s genocide)
    Greenhouses prisons for slaves
    (yes your compost’s a grave)
    It’s time to stop all this gardening
    (take up macrame)
    Let’s call a spade a spade
    (is a spade it’s a spade it’s a spade)

    Live version at http://www.google.com/search?q=arrogant+worms

    shout-outs to Huff and the crew of the Rabid Badger

  6. Troofseeker, anyone who agrees with me is obviously a person of talent, perception, and uncommon good looks. I’m sure you’ll make a great tree.

    I’ve seen this sentiment on BB before, somebody posted a link to “green burials” on wikipedia that was very interesting.

  7. Because of the disease vector. Really, pigs are almost too close, and monkeys are right out.

    I much expected and appreciate that answer. This stands perilously close to a question and subsequent discussion I carried out with my mother and younger brother just a day ago.

    If you were, perhaps, in a situation which necessitated the eating of human meat, recently deceased, in order to survive, would you do so?

    -applause-. I see your Worms, and raise you the words of the good Reverend Maynard.

    And the angel of the lord came unto me,
    snatching me up from my place of slumber.

    And took me on high, and higher still until we moved to the spaces betwixt the air itself.

    And he brought me into a vast farmlands of our own midwest.

    And as we descended, cries of impending doom rose from the soil.

    One thousand, nay a million voices full of fear.
    And terror possesed me then.

    And I begged,
    “Angel of the Lord, what are these tortured screams?”

    And the angel said unto me,
    “These are the cries of the carrots, the cries of the carrots!
    You see, Reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day
    and to them it is the holocaust.”

    And I sprang from my slumber drenched in
    sweat like the tears of one million terrified
    brothers and roared,

    “Hear me now, I have seen the light!
    They have a consciousness, they have a life, they have a soul!
    Damn you!
    Let the rabbits wear glasses!
    Save our brothers!”

    Can I get an amen?

    Can I get a hallelujah?

    Thank you Jesus.

    Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on……..

  8. Humbolt squid eat each other–not to mention human divers–so calamari is still on my list. It’s only fair.

  9. @16: You forgot the “This is necessary.” ;)

    That song is best heard in an enclosed space with good bass capabilities and the volume turned up enough that the sermon comes through nice and clear. When the chanting starts up with the drums it’s encompassing. You get your ridiculous and your creepy all at once. Amen.

    This. Is. Necessary.
    This. Is. Necessary.
    feeds on life
    feeds on life
    feeds on life
    feeds on
    This. Is. Necessary.

    What can I say? Morbid, but true.

  10. little octopussy:

    It was a blindingly bright post-New Year’s day. The sea was bitingly chill through the neoprene of the wetsuit and every motion and sense amplified by the brisk wind that raised the chop and forced salt-tang down the snorkel.

    The blue below shaded to cobalt and striated black, splintered with crystal flashes of anchovy, vision strained to the limit to catch the subtle shadow of prey’s movement. Nothing. The numbing and frustration growing with every kick of a fin. Scanning, scanning, neck ever moving like an aviator searching for the glint of a lower target or death from behind and above. Shark line trailing to float and bamboo skewer, empty. Forearm aching from holding the tension of spear-rubber, ready cocked to avoid frighting the next victim. Chill, cramps, frustration, all heightened by hunting awareness.

    A rock on the bottom moves. Twenty meters below, it stretches an arm and then another and pulls itself along. Three breaths, diaphragm tightens and then the stoop; jackknife, fins break surface and spear point leads the way a full body length ahead. Slow, steady kick, murder from above comes to below.

    Too big a rock to scoop by hand, no gaff to hook means use the point. A shot! Steel leaps through the neck and the octopus convulses, winding around its tormentor, the point already broken on coral beneath. Ink explodes.

    Smooth unfolding, turn to the light, to the hammered mirror high above, kick and let spear-grasp slip to the butt. Stop. Pull, firm resistance and look back; he’s seized the bottom.
    Both hands now, plunging the shaft, barbs wide open, he’s gripping tight and even yet flailing to run. Stuck. One breath.

    Air. Light. Above. Leave the steel, kick up. Steady finning, thin stream of bubbles trailing, up, up. Air. Stop. Stopped. Tied a body length under the shattered mirror above. Look down; shark line around waist clothes-lined tight straight down, float and skewer hopelessly twisted in the rubber of the spear, steel set firmly in would-be prey, octopus holding fast to rock and coral. One breath. Vain tugging, nothing to set against, cord uncuttable, knife gone somehow, fingers too frozen to untie knots. A reverse puppet on a single string jerking from the grip below.

    One breath. Spin, stoop and kick! Back down, all the way! Grab the spear and twist, jerk for all life is worth, nothing! Turn again up, one breath. Again to the limit, up tight, life a few kicks away, the cord now death come at last, a string taut,unrelenting. One Breath… The edges of vision ringing darker, a noise of bees rising. A vision, a vision of a bloated corpse, eye-sockets fish nibbled, bulging distended from tatters of rubber, hovering at the end of rope like some forgotten bit of fisherman’s gear lost over the side and drifting forever. The cinema of the life lived so far and what would be lost, those who would forever look over the sea and wonder…. one breath…. calmness… now truly in a dream, turn and stoop and kick…. the intended bunching below to repel yet another assault. Both feet set firmly on the bottom, now gone to sand as the flight took it, tight grasp once more and TWIST! Steel snaps at the point’s neck. Kick,kick kick one breath….. very quiet now, and the ringing has almost gone. Burst through! Hacking, sputtering,snot spewing bursting forth! A shuddering inhale of half air/half brine, more puking, gobbering …
    Kick to shore, carried by the surf as much as by muscle, the grovelling crawl on the hands and knees over the sharp barnacles, shark line dragging clattering steel behind..


  11. #17 POSTED BY SHRDLU , FEBRUARY 6, 2009 1:27 PM

    Humbolt squid eat each other–not to mention human divers–so calamari is still on my list. It’s only fair.


  12. “If you were, perhaps, in a situation which necessitated the eating of human meat, recently deceased, in order to survive, would you do so?”

    In a heartbeat. What seasonings are available, and is there something I can improvise into a marinade? I imagine adult human’s kinda stringy.

  13. Animals eat each other. Sometimes in really gruesome ways. So, are vegetarians BETTER than animals?

    Then I guess it’s okay for you to eat them.

    Figure out that one and Zen will be a cakewalk.

  14. Is there some law that says they have to acknowledge evolution in every news release even if it has nothing to do with the story? This evolution nonsense is turning into a sort of religion.

    1. This evolution nonsense is turning into a sort of religion.

      First of all, that’s the quote of the year. Secondly, understanding evolution is fundamental to the understanding of all bio-sciences.

  15. BTW, where I come from we call people like Ms. Mather animal behaviorists. My understanding of the definition of psychology (and I have a whole slew of them in my family) is that they study the HUMAN mind, since we demonstrably have a psyche TO study.

    Anyway I’m just being a PITA (not be confused with PETA). I’ve always loved cephalopods, and always thought they were obviously intelligent, and that they are above all delicious and nutritious as can be. Ask a shark or a whale: nummers!

  16. @Arkizzle

    Glad you liked it! Sometimes it’s difficult to convince people to give a fair chance to a song called “Disgustipated”. I can’t imagine why.

  17. How did this insanely interesting post get relegated to a discussion of why it is wrong to eat animals.

    That is amazing that squids have the capacity to do such things as build walls, play with objects and what not.

    Science continues to amaze.

  18. Is there some law that says they have to acknowledge evolution in every news release even if it has nothing to do with the story?

    Why, yes. In fact, today’s NYT headline reads: “House Republicans tepid toward bailout; Evolution a fact”

    I wonder what Jennifer Mather’s opinion is of caddisfly larvae who build a sheath out of stones? Are they as intelligent as an octopus?

  19. Well, I have a modest question for you Ito; why not eat homo sapiens? Tasty and nutritious.

    Simple: Extension of the Golden Rule (or whatever you call it).
    Instead of “do to others as you would like them to do to you”, let’s use the extended version, invented by Kant (or someone, to lazy to google it):
    “Moral actions are those actions that, if extended to a general law that all humans would follow, would result in a society with the largest amount of happiness for the largest number of people”

    (Badly paraphrased, sorry)

    If everyone was a cannibal, I would live in mortal fear of being killed and eaten. That would be bad. Therefore, I am not a cannibal.

    Animals, even very intelligent ones, are exempt since they do not follow laws.

    As an aside – this may be why many who eat pig, cow, lamb etc. get so upset when others eat dog – dogs do, to a certain extent, follow laws laid down by their owners.

  20. SPAZ/ITO,
    Okay, here’s the deal. IF the three of us should crash a small craft in the Himalayas (I’m not saying it’s gonna happen), but if it does, and we’re starving, and I should die first, you guys can eat the meat in my thighs, or my “hams”, on condition that you bury me naked with a young tree on my belly. If Ito doesn’t want to eat it, fine, throw the other thigh (or cheek) into the hole. Don’t pee on my grave. Too salty. Deal? So what are you guys doing this weekend? Wanna take a trip? I’ve got octopus!

  21. Troofseeker- Can I stowaway and have Ito’s share?

    Andrea- EEEE! Lemme buy you a drink! I hardly expected to find a fellow Tool fan here… Disgustipated is just one of the songs in which I find myself absorbed, lost. A Perfect Circle, his other project, has a few songs like that, but not nearly so many.

    And I cower in shame for having missed the most important part. In all honesty, I was too lazy to write the lyrics myself and grabbed them from a site.

    Arkizzle- You are most welcome.

    Takuan- That’s amazing. Is it yours, or yet another example of your incredible ability with bringing in relevant material?

  22. Tenn:

    Second round’s on me, then, because I couldn’t agree more. I like A Perfect Circle well enough, but comparisons are inevitable and they’re just not Tool. Still good to hear Maynard sing, though.

  23. I lived it. Couldn’t go in for a month after. The sea will kill you like a bug and no one will ever know.

  24. Well then, Taku-san, I am supremely delighted the sea did not kill you like a bug, and I marvel at your skills in oratory.

  25. And some people still eat meat. Amazing.

    Hey, all the meat on the planet is gonna get eaten by something sooner or later. It might as well be me!

    Octopi are all kinds of awesome, but they eat each other all the time. I’m not gonna show more empathy to an octopus than another octopus will.

  26. …or maybe I didn’t make it, and this is all one extended hologram… it was an incredibly beautiful place you know, you couldn’t ask for a finer tomb.

  27. Wow what a tuneful bunch we all are in the comments today! I just wanted to recommend to everyone who welcomes our tentacled overlords a fabulous documentary: “The Brainy Bunch” – “Imagine an alien with three hearts and ten arms growing out of its head. This intriguing special reveals the spectacular pyrotechnics of cuttlefish, discovering what goes on between their eyes and what can they teach us about our own brainpower.”

    My 7 yr old’s favourite show by far andhe has not even got a doughnut shaped brain.

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